by Amie Newman

At the Border, We’re Seeing Exactly What America Is

It’s impossible not to see the pleas plastered on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram: “We are better than this.” “This is not who America is.” “This is not the America I know!”

But it is who we are: what the United States is doing to families and children, specifically families and children of color, by ripping them apart at the U.S. border is part and parcel of an ongoing history. It is horrific and unbearable and inhumane. But it is exactly what America is and continues to be.

We do not like when these injustices become so evident. We prefer our cruelty to remain in the shadows. You know, like lack of access to safe and legal abortion. Or barring women, especially low-wage workers, from paid family leave, or perpetuating a medical system that continues to allow Black women to die during pregnancy and childbirth at three times the rate of White women. So, yes, this new policy is an emergency, but the oppression is definitely not new.

Here’s how to make sense of it all—use a reproductive justice lens. Through that lens, we can easily see the links between the host of injustices the state perpetrates on families and women, right up through this despicable separation policy.

Reproductive justice looks at the ways marginalized people, including immigrants and women of color, are particularly abused by the state, especially when it comes to parenting, reproduction, and control over one’s body. Forward Together’s Reproductive Justice media guide explains:

The reproductive justice framework is rooted in the recognition of the histories of reproductive oppression and abuse in communities of color…The central theme of the reproductive justice framework is a focus on naming and eliminating the control and exploitation of women’s bodies, sexuality, and reproduction as an effective strategy of controlling people, particularly women of color, trans and GNC people of color, and their communities. 


The policy of tearing children from their parents who come to the United States seeking a better way of life or fleeing untenable violence is an extension of the control and exploitation of women’s bodies and lives the state has wrought since its founding on genocide and slavery. 

Eugenics policies—the practice of controlling breeding to “improve” the human race, most often when it comes to women of color–are practically embedded within the history of this country. For example, the United States carried out tens of thousands of forced sterilizations of Black, Latinx, and Native American women throughout the twentieth century on the basis that some Americans were “unfit” to reproduce. According to Our Bodies Ourselves, a 1965 survey of Puerto Rican women revealed that close to one-third of all mothers between the ages of 20 and 49 years old had been sterilized without their informed consent. In other words, this country has embraced the narrative for over a century that it women of color should not have children – do not deserve to have children. 

We’ve vilified the bodies of immigrant women also, and used the propaganda to inflict harmful state policies: recall our national conversation about “anchor babies.” This phrase was created in an absurd attempt to keep immigrant women out of the United States and was based on the idea that women were coming to the United States illegally to give birth in the hopes that they would then be able to stay in the U.S. legally. The phrase itself has been called dehumanizing and racist. not to mention that The Washington Post also debunked it as “largely mythical.” In 2007, reproductive justice advocate and attorney Priscilla Huang, writing about a conservative think-tank’s study of single motherhood among immigrant women as the “downfall of America,” shared:

The irrational stance of anti-immigrant advocates echoes that of 1990’s welfare reformers. Both assume that childbearing by immigrants or poor women of color creates a cycle of poverty and dependence on the government. Immigrant women and women on welfare are depicted as irresponsible mothers and fraudulent freeloaders. 

What we are facing today is a continued thread of oppression against women of color at the hands of the state. This policy is undeniably a reproductive justice issue, just as it is when we deny a person the right to end a pregnancy or the right to parent free from institutionalized police violence. Just as it is a reproductive justice issue when we criminalize aspects of pregnancy and motherhood. Turning a blind eye on these other issues, from maternal mortality to abortion access being eroded to locked-up moms, has led us to this moment. 

This current immigration policy is yet another abuse in a long line of them. If you consider yourself “pro-choice” and pro reproductive justice, it’s time to connect the dots and let people know this is exactly what America is and has been for immigrant women of color for a long time.


© 2011 Lilith Magazine